Sharon Strand Ellison’s, Taking the War Out of Our Words: The Art of Powerful Non-Defensive Communication gives new meaning to the old adage “you catch more bees with honey than with vinegar”. Ellison describes communication in the United States of America as combative. Our everyday conversations have turned into power struggles resulting in defensive reactions:  

  • Surrender-betrayal: Giving in and taking responsibility for a situation that we are not directly responsible for. Betraying ourselves. 
  • Surrender-sabotage: Faking our sorrow, and through our deeds demonstrating our bitterness. Passive-aggressive behavior is an example. 
  • Withdrawal-Escape: Avoiding, or simply leaving the situation. 
  • Withdrawal-Entrap: Avoiding in a way that forces our ‘opponent’ to do something inappropriate. 
  • Attack-Justify: Rationalizing and making excuses for what has happened. 
  • Attack-Blame: Holding back and using our resources to attack and judge. 

The good news is we can shift this! Ellison offers three conversation tools to diminish the power struggle: questions, statements, and predictions. This blog post focuses on using questions to unlock information, disarm defensiveness, and interrupt the power struggle, while increasing self-awareness and changing attitudes and behaviors. 

The reality is most of us don’t ask enough questions. Have you ever met a toddler? You know, those small human beings that ask all the why questions. Why did he do that? Why is she sad? Why can’t I do X? Why is the sky blue? Human beings are born curious. Yet, many of us were taught that asking too many questions is rude and invasive. Now is the time to retrain our brains and recognize the value of non-defensive questions to improve our communication.

What is a non-defensive question? 

Non-defensive questions are:

  1. Innocently curious – Asking purely for discovery. There is no hidden agenda. 
  2. Open – Making ourselves vulnerable to discovering the answer, even though it might not be what we want to hear.
  3. Neutral – Removing feelings to deliver the question in a neutral tone. This is contrary to what most of us have been taught because it requires coming down in tone like we would do when making a statement. 
  4. Inviting – Using a gentle tone to create safety and encourage an honest response. 

What do non-defense questions accomplish?

First, non-defensive questions clarify assumptions. Making assumptions literally prevents us from asking questions because we believe we know what the other person means. Next time you assume you know what someone means, stop yourself. Rather than forge ahead with your initial reaction based on what you assume they meant only to later realize you acted upon, or reacted to, an assumption based on your own thoughts, feelings and beliefs, which were incorrect, ask a non-defensive question. When we don’t, we not only risk failing to understand and address the real concern, we create miscommunications. And while some miscommunications might result in a good laugh, many result in conflict, negative feelings, or worse, damaged relationships. Simply asking a clarifying question can clarify what was meant and change the entire course. For example, “When you say X, what do you mean?” Asking questions about words or phrases used gives us greater clarity.

Second, asking non-defensive questions helps us gather information. It is no secret that many of us don’t actually say what we mean. This can create serious misunderstandings. Consider a time when you asked a friend or family member if they were upset only to receive a simple “no” followed by sulking and other behaviors that sent a very different message. Perhaps you accepted it and moved on or continued coaxing them to tell you what was wrong. What if you used the bits of information you had and flipped the script asking, “Are you saying you are not upset because you believe that nothing is wrong, or because for some reason you don’t want to talk to me about it?” Asking a non-defensive question disarms and allows the other person to answer freely and honestly.

Third, non-defensive questions establish separateness, which means not getting caught up in our defensiveness. Instead, asking a question that shifts the conversation from a defensive response to asking a question exploring where the other person is coming from. For example, if someone renders an opinion as a statement such as, “Don’t worry, you wouldn’t like that anyway.” You could ask, “Are you stating that as your opinion, or are you stating that as a fact?” A sincere question often has the effect of equalizing a conversation, even in cases where there is a power differential. It enables us to separate ourselves from someone else’s judgments. It also gets them to stop, think, and potentially rethink the statement or allows us to express a different perspective without defensiveness. Regardless, we can walk away with our confidence and self-esteem intact. 

Finally, non-defensive questions give us an opportunity to ask direct questions in a non-threatening way, allowing the other person to take more responsibility for their own behavior without getting defensive. “What do you mean by….?” or “Why do you assume….?”

Before you ask that next question, remember, it is not an opportunity to make a statement or express an opinion. Nor is it a way to communicate how we are feeling. Rather, it is a way to discover information that will help us understand accurately what the speaker means, believes or feels. Take a deep breath and consider:

  • Am I feeling sincere, calm, and relaxed?
  • Have I given up the need to control how the other person answers?
  • Am I willing to hear the answer?
  • Is my question curious? Innocent? Open? Neutral? Inviting?

While this may seem simple, asking non-defensive questions takes practice. Rather than wait for a conflict or difficult situation, ask more questions during peaceful exchanges as well! Be patient with yourself and keep at it. The more you pay attention to the questions you ask and how you ask them, the faster you will start formulating non-defensive questions in the moment. 

A video recording of my March 30, 2021 Lunch and Learn “What’s in a question?” is also available. Watch now!

By: Elizabeth Hill, Associate Director, University of Colorado Boulder Ombuds Office